Deep in the wilds of Nepal lives a native people group perfectly adapted to the harsh environment and challenges of mountain climbing. Climbers attempting to ascend Mount Everest turn to them as guides. They are Sherpas. Their name has become so synonymous with knowledgeable leadership that in our modern culture, we use the term “Sherpa” to mean a guide through the unknown.
It is this unlikely image that comes to mind as I struggle to teach my daughter how to navigate the world. My personality weighs heavily on the side of social-emotional strength. People make sense to me. Her personality leans almost completely the other way. She excels at deep and complex thought. People, however, are as foreign to her as the snow-covered top of Everest. I find myself acting as her Sherpa, pointing out dangers and instructing her in survival techniques.
If you have a child with a strong personality, you might find yourself in a similar position. The task can feel overwhelming. I’ve given it a lot of thought and broken down the job into 5 steps.
1. Develop “normalcy” in conversation.
If you plop down on your kid’s bed one day with a list of do’s and don’ts, they probably won’t react with gratitude or even a smile. The kind of deep dialogue needed in discussions about our strengths and weaknesses comes over time. Create the space in your lives for heart-felt talks that build over time. Your child should feel safe and respected before you even start doling out advice.
Once you start the conversation, build a vocabulary with each other. My daughter and I talk a lot about her “introverted” versus my “extroverted” personality. When it comes up, we both know what the other means.
2. Observe objectively.
A few weeks ago, I dropped my daughter off at an event and ended up talking to other parents outside. I was there to see her group come out of the room they were in and head to another. Her three friends walked in front while my daughter slumped behind, staring at the ground with an unfocused look.
Yet, when I pick her up after school, I frequently find her with a huge smile on her face, head bent in close discussion with her BFF. It can be hard for us to recognize our children’s strengths and weaknesses in the outside world until we collect enough of these individual scenarios in our minds.
As a raging extrovert, it is hard at times for me to understand an introvert’s perspective and motivations. I highly recommend looking into different personality tests for yourself. Although it’s generally not suggested for kids to take these types of tests, your increased understanding of your own qualities will help you understand theirs by comparison. There are several sites out there that offer free basic tests and results that can get you started: MBTI, Enneagram, Big 5. One of my favorite parts of these tests, is their lack of judgement. Each characteristic is presented with good and bad. No one type of person is better than another.
Another amazingly helpful and encouraging resource is talking to other people similar to your child. When a dear friend shared about her middle school years, I felt encouraged. She had the same struggles as my daughter. Not only did she help me understand this different point of view, she gave me hope for a happy outcome in the end! The cycle between observation and learning isn’t a one-time thing. It will continue long into your child’s future.
Once you have talked with your dear one about how to navigate a particular difficulty, make a game plan and seek out situations to use it. This means being intentional and deliberate about what they do. Rather than jumping into everything, think through scenarios and what will be a good challenge versus a painful experience for them. Going back to the example with the group above, my daughter and I talked about the message body language sends. We decided that even if she wasn’t comfortable making conversation in this bigger group, she could stand up straight, make eye contact, and smile at those around her, in order to avoid making them feel as if she didn’t want to be there.
5. Release the guilt.
Having a difficult child can come with a lot of guilt and pressure of expectations. You will have to decide, over and over again, to let it go. Forgive yourself for not being a magical genie who can wave a wand and erase difficulties. Forgive your child for not always being able to do what is expected or desired. Forgive the world for not always understanding the struggle!